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After two days in Madrid, I had totally and completely fallen in love with Spain’s capital city. Although to be fair, I love pretty much everything Spanish, so I’m hardly objective. Even my husband (who is not a city guy) said he “really liked it,” which is a huge compliment from him. If you’re planning your own trip, this post shares 15 of the best things to do in Madrid, how to get around with public transportation, and other useful travel tips in a convenient 2-day Madrid itinerary.
From the land of Swiss cows to the land of Spanish puerco, we arrived in the city on the evening of the third day of our road trip from Switzerland. We were meeting up with Alicia, a friend who grew up there, and would be staying with her at her parents’ home for the next few days. With Alicia as our expert local guide, we explored a handful of classic Madrid landmarks, as well as several non-touristy things to do in Madrid. It was the perfect two days in the city!
For those who just want to get right to it and don’t need any extra info about attraction prices, opening hours, etc, here’s our free custom map of Madrid.
We created it as a Madrid 2-day itinerary with the attractions roughly split in half between day one and two. They’re in order on the map of when we visited them on our walking tour. (Just open the map or hit the icon in the upper left to see the travel itinerary in list form.)
Obviously you can visit the landmarks in the same order, or just visit the ones that really interest you.
What to Know About Getting Around in Madrid
If you happen to be driving to or in Madrid, it’s surprisingly easy to get around for such a large city. That being said, we do have a couple of useful tips.
Make sure you have a good map app.
After inadvertently missing an exit on the Autopista M-30, we had to drive miles out of our way in the underground tunnel before we had an opportunity to exit and turn around. Don’t let that happen to you!
When we’re traveling and have WiFi, we use Google Maps. Usually when we’re traveling, though, we don’t have WiFi. In that case, we use the free map app called Maps.me. You have to download your maps while you have WiFi, but you can easily download an entire country or region with one click, and then you’re good to go.
We downloaded Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, and Monaco for this road trip. The maps are either as good as Google Maps or better, and we had free and reliable offline map navigation for our entire 10-day road trip. Pretty awesome.
Leave your car and take public transportation to the downtown center.
Public transportation in Madrid is inexpensive and easy to use, so we recommend leaving your car at your lodging once you arrive and just taking the bus or train.
After dropping off our bags and meeting Alicia’s parents, we caught a bus downtown from her parents’ place. It was cheap and fast, and we didn’t have to worry about parking.
Travel Tip: Packets of public transportation tickets in Madrid are available for sale at many street kiosks. They’re good for 10 rides. Single trip tickets can also be purchased on the bus.
Explore the Madrid city center on foot.
After taking the bus downtown, we visited all 15 attractions on foot. It really is the best way to experience the city!
The total distance of our Madrid 2-day itinerary is about 13 km, which is way too much for one day, especially since that doesn’t leave enough time to spend at the sites. Spreading it out over two days instead is much more doable, though obviously you can spend an entire day at a single museum if you want. For most people though, this itinerary will give you a good feel for Madrid in two days.
1. Reina Sofía National Museum of Art
We started our walking tour at one of Madrid’s most famous art museums – the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. It’s usually simply referred to as the Reina Sofia.
Primarily featuring Spanish artists, it has impressive collections from both Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. I’ve been a fan of Salvador Dalí since 1998 after visiting the Dalí Museum in Figueres where he lived. I was pretty excited to see his work!
The museum is really well organized with a detailed map of which room features each artist. It allows visitors to locate the art they most want to see so you can maximize your time at the museum.
Since Alicia knew the evening schedule for free entry, we breezed in without paying and headed for the Salvador Dalí room.
Travel Tip: The Reina Sofia museum is FREE on Monday and Wednesday-Saturday from 6-8 pm, on Sundays from 1:30-2:15 pm, and on April 18th and December 6.
After moving on, we found a couple of pieces from the 18th century, as well as some modern pieces, that stood out. Not usually a fan of modern art, I was surprised.
Perhaps my favorite there was a painting called “Un mundo” by artist Àngeles Santos. Measuring roughly 3 x 3 meters, the massive piece fills nearly an entire wall. Completed in 1929, it reveals the world as a cube with spirit women playing instruments while another lights a stick from the sun to give birth to the stars.
Price: €10 regular admission price Opening Hours: Monday and Wednesday-Saturday from 10am-8pm, Sunday from 10am-2:30pm. CLOSED Tuesdays Official Website:Reina Sofia Museum
2. Cervecería La Campana
When the museum closed, we realized we were starving.
Alicia led us a few blocks to the Cervecería La Campana, where we filled up on deep-fried calamari sandwiches for just a couple bucks each.
Hallelujah for non-Swiss prices!!
Cerveceria la Campana is one of those non-touristy things to do in Madrid. The little hole-in-the-wall eatery is super popular in Madrid. It has a ton of good reviews on various online sites, yet it’s cheap, tasty, and service is fast so you likely won’t have a wait.
They’re most famous for their calamari, or squid sandwiches (bocadillos de calamares), but they also offer both sandwiches and platters with anchovies, omelettes, and chorizo.
Depending on whether you’re an early bird or you get started later in the day, you can stop for either lunch or dinner. Either way, once your stomach is full, you’ll be grateful for a chance to walk off dinner and see more city sights or find your bed and crash!
The place is also called Bar la Campana, or just La Campana. If you’re having a hard time finding it, the address is C. de Botoneras, 6, 28012 Madrid, Spain.
Price: Most items are under €5 Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:30am-11pm, Friday 9:30am-midnight, Saturday 10am-midnight, Sunday 10am-11pm
3. Mercado de San Miguel
Foodies definitely shouldn’t miss the Mercado de San Miguel, or San Miguel Market. The huge, covered gourmet marketplaces is popular with tourists and locals alike.
Want gourmet fixin’s for tapas? This is the place to buy them. Visitors can buy everything from legs of Iberian ham and seafood from Galicia to specialty cheeses from Basque Country.
It’s a great place to visit for either lunch or dinner. You can sample a variety of tapas with your choice of local beer or wine. Even if you don’t need to buy anything, it’s worth it just to experience the fascinating variety of products for sale.
Price: Free admission, no limit to how much you can spend on goodies! Opening Hours: Sunday-Thursday 10am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 10am-1am Official Website:Mercado de San Miguel
4. Almudena Cathedral
If you’re looking for things to do at night in Madrid, the next few attractions won’t disappoint. Though they’re closed in the evening, they’re stunning in the evening with the way they’re brightly lit up. The first one is Almudena Cathedral.
Almudena Cathedral is the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese in Madrid. It was originally intended to be a pantheon when construction was started in 1883.
Over the years, the original Gothic architectural style changed, and construction was halted during the Spanish Civil War. The cathedral wasn’t officially completed until 1993.
The official name of it is the Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena. Very Spanish, right?!
Price: Admission is free, but a donation of €1 is requested Opening Hours: Check their site for current hours Official Website:Almudena Cathedral
5. Royal Palace of Madrid
The Royal Palace is historically the official home to the Spanish Royal Family, though it’s currently used for official functions only.
With over 3000 rooms, it’s the largest royal residence in Europe.
The Cervantes Monument is right at the center of the Plaza de España. The monument rises above a long rectangular fountain with the city of Madrid as a backdrop.
A simple stone statue of Cervantes, the Spanish author who wrote Don Quixote, looks down on larger-than-life bronze sculptures of his book characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Price: Free Opening Hours: Always open
8. Cerralbo Museum
The most unexpected surprise for us and one of my favorite attractions of the entire trip was the Cerralbo Museum.
The museum is home to the personal collections of Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the Marquis of Cerralbo. The site of the museum is the former home of the marquis, a Spanish archaeologist and insatiable collector of antiques who died in 1922.
Cerralbo offers a stunning variety of paintings, statues, clocks, lamps, and home furnishings that are absolutely packed into the lavish home.
Perhaps the most impressive collection is that of the lamps and light fixtures.
The museum is packed with fanciful and colorful chandeliers, many of them made of Murano – or Venetian – glass.
If you’re looking for a quirky museum that’s a bit off the beaten path in Madrid, we highly recommend the Cerralbo Museum.
Price: Free from July 10-Sept 30, 2021. Check their site after that date. Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9:30am-3pm, Thursdays 5-8pm (always free), closed Mondays Official Website:Cerralbo Museum
9. Templo de Debod
The Templo de Debod is a 2200-year-old Egyptian temple that originally was built near the Nile River.
The temple was gifted to Spain in gratitude for their assistance in saving several important ruins from flooding after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1968.
The temple was taken apart and rebuilt, stone by stone, in the Plaza de Oeste overlooking the city of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral.
Price: Free Opening Hours: Always open
10. Pinchos (Tapas) at La Máquina on the Gran Vía
If you’re hungry by now, head for the Gran Vía, Madrid’s premiere shopping street. It’s packed with eateries, cafes, and restaurants.
For those in search of fabulous city views and traditional Spanish food, you might like La Máquina, a rooftop eatery overlooking the famous street and city skyline.
Madrid is known for their pinchos, which are little sandwiches similar to tapas. Named for the skewer (pincho in Spanish) that typically holds the ingredients together, they come in individual servings.
We selected a variety for the three of us to share.
They were all delicious, from the ones with anchovies and another with a tasty truffle sauce to my favorite – tortilla española, a Spanish omelette with fried potatoes cooked in seasoned eggs.
Spanish food is sooooo good!
11. The Bear and The Strawberry Tree
One of the most popular areas of Madrid is a plaza called Puerta del Sol.
In particular, visitors flock to see the 20-ton statue of El Oso y El Madroño: The Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
During medieval times, the area was home to a vast forest of strawberry trees and bears that roamed the wilds. The statue is the symbol of Madrid, representing its fertile land and aristocracy.
Even if you’re exploring Madrid in the off-season, you’ll likely have to wait in line if you want a photo of yourself with the famous bear. Of all the free things to do in Madrid, this is always popular.
Price: Free Opening Hours: Always open
12. Cybele Palace – Palacio de Cibeles
As you gradually work your way to the Museo del Prado, Madrid’s premier art museum, you’ll pass the Palacio de Cibeles, which used to be the old post office. It even still says Correos on the building, though it now houses City Hall.
Making our way past the metal detectors to see the inside, we sat awhile on their comfy couches, used the free restroom (always a surprise bonus in Europe), and filled up our water bottle.
There’s not much to see or do inside, but don’t miss the stained glass panels in the building’s ceiling.
13. Prado Museum
Another of the best things to do in Madrid is to visit the Prado Museum, which has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in the world.
Neither Trav nor I have ever been a fan of old, dark, religious paintings. We have little interest in scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus, chubby cherubs, and obscure religious figures. Surprisingly, we both discovered quite a few paintings at El Prado that we really liked!
Particularly memorable were those by artists like Francisco Pradillo that date from the 19th century and reflect historical realism. Unfortunately we can’t share any photos from the museum since we weren’t allowed to take any.
Travel Tip: Take note that the museum has banned all photography and not just flash photography.
Ironically, the museum was hosting a visiting Picasso exhibit from the Kuntsmuseum in Basel during our visit. We wouldn’t drive the two hours from our house in Switzerland to see it in Basel, let alone all the way to Madrid. I care not for Picasso, though I have to admit that his Guernica came to life with our friend Alicia’s insightful running commentary.
Travel Tip: For FREE entrance, visit Monday through Saturday from 6-8pm or Sunday from 5-7pm. If you visit during other times, we recommend buying tickets online so you don’t have to wait in line.
Price: €15 for an adult ticket Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am-8pm, Sundays 10am-7pm Official Website:El Prado Museum
14. The Crystal Palace & Retiro Park
When you leave the Prado Museum, outdoor lovers will enjoy a lovely evening walk through the Parque del Retiro, or Retiro Park. It’s definitely one of the most romantic things to do in Madrid.
The Crystal Palace.
At times, the palace hosts exhibits, but during our visit the park was mostly empty.
We admired the glass and metal architecture of the palace from the outside, talked to the turtles in the pond for a spell, then continued on past the Plaza Maestro Villa with its beautiful statues and reflecting pool.
Right at the northwest corner of the Parque del Retiro is a giant roundabout with the monstrous Puerta de Alcalá at its center.
Completed in 1778, the monument is graced by statues representing the four cardinal virtues: temperance, justice, prudence, and courage.
It seemed fitting somehow that we should end our tour of Madrid at this particular piece of architecture. Once the gate of kings, steeped in history and moral integrity, it was a final memorable symbol of our short time in a truly vibrant city.
So there ya have it – our Madrid 2-day itinerary, straight from the expert recommendations of a knowledgeable local!
Though we just barely scratched the surface, we left content at how much we were able to see in just 48 hours in Madrid. It was all on foot, and much of it was free. We hope you found our guide useful and enjoy your visit!
Huge thank you to our friend, Alicia, for sharing her beautiful city with us!